Books That Helped Me With My Writing

recommended books on desk

Last week, I applied to several low-residency MFA programs. While I’d LOVE to get accepted into one of those programs, I’m trying to remember that there are other ways to learn about writing literary fiction, too. The chances of getting accepted into an MFA program seem like they’re getting lower and lower these days, even in low-residency programs as universities get more and more selective. I’m not complaining; I’m just managing my expectations. That being said, there are a few books that helped me with my writing over the years that I’ve been revisiting.

Books That Helped Me With My Writing

Most of these books I read during my undergrad years of my English degree. They provided a lot of really useful ways of thinking about my work both during the early draft stages and the many, many, many editing stages. Of course the professors were super helpful at my university, too. I think a lot of them picked books that would stay with us over the years if we needed to go back and re-assess our writing every now and then. Also, they don’t cost very much. If I don’t get into any of the MFA programs I recently applied to, at least I will have these.

Cane by Jean Toomer

This books is a novel. Or a poem. Actually it’s a prose poem novel. Or a manuscript. Okay, to be honest, it’s really different, and that’s why it’s helpful to me. My professor in Intro to Creative Writing assigned it because models are very important when you are studying craft. This book is largely unedited for the most part. This results in a very interesting look at the process of writing, or even creativity in general. It’s a good starting place to just get a feel for how you might want to start a draft of something. It’s a good first step, whether you’re into writing traditional stuff or experimental, weird or whatever.

Ron Carlson Writes A Story by Ron Carlson

Ron Carlson is on the faculty at the University of California, Irvine. I’ve never met him, but I workshopped with Michelle Latiolais once, who is also on the faculty there. She was a visiting author giving a masterclass at my university. One of my professors was a student under both of them there.

Anyway, Ron Carlson’s theory of inventory is one of the best ways to think about the craft of writing I’ve heard yet. Ron Carlson takes you through how he wrote one of his short stories, “The Governor’s Ball”. The story was published in The New Yorker at some point. He almost goes through sentence by sentence. It’s really cool. Not only is this a really good book for your writing in the intermediate stage, but it’s also really great to help you with workshopping pieces on their own merrit.

The Portable MFA in Creative Writing by The New York Writers Workshop

I was not assigned this book in any curriculum, but I got it anyway. I read the section on fiction and still check out the poetry section every now and then. It basically gives you an overview of some of the stuff you might discuss about craft during an MFA. I’m just now applying to some MFA programs, so I really don’t know how accurate it is of an experience. I imagine it’s the nuts and bolts of it all and is a decent reference every so often.

This book is also nice because it has sections on lots of different genres: fiction, poetry, personal essay and memoir, and journalism. You never now what you might want to write some day. Most MFA programs only focus on one concentration, with maybe a few chances here and there to explore other crafts. It’s helpful to have something to look back on for those other genres as the years go by.

The One Hour MFA (in fiction) by Michael Kimball

I think the as originally published serialized in RealPants (a literary journal.) This is a nice quick read if you’re into it. It goes over some very important topics such as language, character, plot, dialogue, and other aspects of fiction. It’s all stuff I imagine an MFA candidate will encounter, but the material is a little deeper than in The Portable MFA in Creative Writing.

Widow by Michelle Latiolais

Again, models of great work are super important when you are studying creative writing. Widow is a great fiction collection by Michelle Latiolais that pretty much gets an A+ on everything that all of the other books talk about, plus it’s just also really good. Worth having around to look at when you are needing inspiration on how to play with language as well. It’s also a good advanced study for when you are trying to put together your own fiction collection (if you’re into that) and trying to determine story order, pacing, theme, and lots of other stuff.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories edited by Tobias Wolff

I was also assigned this book during an advanced fiction class. The stories in it are great models no matter what type of short stories you write. The publisher released another book eventually, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories edited by Ben Marcus. It has more contemporary stories in it and may be worth checking out, too. Anchor may also include a little more diversity in it. But, I found the stories in Vintage to be more interesting to me, probably honestly just because I read it first.

Instead of putting each affiliate link throughout the text and having to say each time that it’s an affiliate link, I’m grouping them all together. Here are the links to the books I mentioned on Amazon. These are all affiliate links – which means I may get money from Amazon if you use these links.

Other Books?

There are the books that helped me with my writing. Do you have any books that you read that really helped you with your writing? I’d love to check them out. Who knows, maybe if I get into an MFA program they’ll turn up in those.

If you like short stories, you can check out my fiction collection, Crushes. It’s also available to read for free on Kindle Unlimited for a while. Yo can also read some of my short stories that I post on my blog on Fridays.

By Eric Shay Howard

Eric Shay Howard lives in Louisville, Kentucky. He's the author of the fiction collection, Crushes, and is a literary editor. He also works at a law firm and is writing his second book. He's a graduate student in the Bluegrass Writers Studio MFA in Creative Writing program at Eastern Kentucky University.

%d bloggers like this: